Terrance Ellis and his family slept in their car behind churches because that’s where they felt safe. Grady Smith calls his childhood “the lost years” because there are only a few photos of him in existence. Jessica Tacdol was abandoned twice.
All of this before they were ushered into California’s foster care system — a network that currently contains more than 80,000 infants, children, and teenagers.
They could have hung their heads. Could have wasted their talents or claimed raw deals. Instead, they chose CSU Stanislaus. Of equal importance, thanks to the support of many, the University was given the opportunity to choose them.
Three of 28 students enrolled in the Promise Scholars Program for emancipated foster youth, these individuals have overcome dark odds to light the paths to their futures through a CSU Stanislaus education.
And how are they faring now?
“For the first time in my life, I am truly happy,” says Smith, a criminal justice major who is taking classes leading him toward a career in forensic photography. “(CSU Stanislaus) has made me feel like more of a normal person.”
Normal is an antonym for what these students experienced before becoming Promise Scholars. Most of them were children of parents who made bad decisions or lived self-destructive lives. Others saw their parents die long before children can begin to cope with tragedy. But all the Promise Scholars are grateful for the people who have helped put their dreams within reach.
Support on campus, and on Capitol Hill
Providing individualized support for students has become a trademark of the Promise Scholars program. Admission to CSU Stanislaus and priority placement for campus housing is only part of what the University is able to offer.
“Just getting them in the door is not good enough,” says Wanda Bonnell, Promise Scholars Program Coordinator since the program’s inception in 2006, talking about the importance of providing students with a support structure.
Among other resources, each Promise Scholar receives academic and career advising, a full financial aid package, along with psychological counseling and tutoring services. In many cases, the program covers all or most of the expenses associated with attending the University, so Promise Scholars can focus on their studies.
But the type of support that Promise Scholars receive from Bonnell and countless others who are a part of the University’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) might not have been possible without the support of one of CSU Stanislaus’ more notable supporters.
“For the first time in my life,
I am truly happy”
a criminal justice major who is taking classes
leading him toward a career in forensic photography.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza and other legislators recently secured $285,000 in federal funds for the expanding PromiseScholars Program. When President Obama signed the FY09 Omnibus Appropriations Bill on March 11, the result of four years of Cardoza’s support and the hard work of many came to fruition.
“(My wife and I) are very aware of the plight of foster children, especially those who are out of the system,” said Cardoza, who adopted two former foster youth in 2000. “Where do they go for Christmas Vacation? What kind of support is in place during the trying times that every young person goes through? I think that these dollars will go a long way toward filling that gap.”
CSU Stanislaus President Dr. Ham Shirvani agrees. “The Promise Scholars Program positively affects the lives of underprivileged individuals who have the drive to push past hardships of their childhood while pursing the many rewards of a CSU Stanislaus education,” he said. “The University deeply appreciates the support of those caring people who have shown the initiative to further this much-needed program.”
The Promise Scholars Program addresses the overwhelming need to provide individualized attention, access, and supportive resources to assist emancipated foster youth in achieving academic success in higher education.
“We can’t change their past, but we can make their futures better,” Bonnell says. “Education changes lives, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
Success Yields More Success
A CSU Stanislaus education has not only improved Tacdol’s life, but it’s given her the drive to help others. She graduated in Spring 08 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and is now working toward her teaching credential so she can advise and inspire students similar to the way Bonnell counseled her as an undergrad.
Bonnell calls Tacdol the “shining star” of the Promise Scholars Program for good reason. Despite being placed in foster care before she was two years old and being shuffled around more than a dozen homes, Tacdol wants to give back to other teens in need.
“When I first met Jessica, she was a shy, reserved teenager.” says Bonnell, “She definitely utilized our advising and counseling programs. And now she is a confident, strong woman.”
In addition to helping bring another wave of six to 10 Promise Scholars each fall, much of the $285,000 will be used to strengthen the program by providing additional student support services, scholarships, housing assistance (particularly in the summer months,) and community outreach initiatives. Expanding the program.
Ellis, a talented visual artist and musician who plays several instruments, runs for the men’s cross country team. He has developed lasting friendships in the classroom, on the team, and with other Promise Scholars. While he’s been able to find himself as a student, he’s still narrowing the focus on his future.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in this life,” says Ellis, who has yet to declare a major, “but I know that in some way I want to help people.”
Estimates show that approximately 20 percent of the nation’s foster youth reside in California. The Promise Scholars at CSU Stanislaus are case studies concluding that foster youth have the desire to attend college and use their talents to become valuable products of higher education.
While the Promise Scholars see unlimited value in a degree, their greatest reward is something that cannot be held in the palm of their hand or hung on a wall.
Says Ellis, quoting his grandmother Maxine’s mantra: “Never be too obsessed about anything that’s tangible, because the only thing you truly own is knowledge.”
Update: Promise Scholars Program Coordinator Wanda Bonnell was recently honored as a 2009 “Angel in Adoption” for her exceptional advocacy and efforts on behalf of emancipated foster youth. She was selected by Congressman Dennis Cardoza as one of more than 190 recipients, only 11 of them from California, who were honored at a September 30, 2009 awards ceremony and gala in Washington, D.C. The “Angels in Adoption” program is the California Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s (CCAI) signature public awareness campaign to honor the work of people who have enriched the lives of foster children and orphans. Past recipients have included First Lady Laura Bush, actress Jane Seymour, actor Bruce Willis, and boxing great Muhammad Ali.